Subpoena for journalist Jamie Kalven’s testimony withdrawn after Reporters Committee submits friend-of-the-court brief

Melissa Wasser | November 28, 2018

Attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press were prepared to defend journalist Jamie Kalven’s newsgathering rights twice this week.

First, Kalven was subpoenaed to testify about his sources in a case where three Chicago police officers face charges for allegedly conspiring to obstruct justice in the investigation of fellow former officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted on murder charges last month for shooting and killing teenager Laquan McDonald. Just days after challenging the subpoena, Kalven was also told he would not be permitted to attend, and therefore cover, the trial since he could potentially be called to testify.

In response, a coalition of 20 media organizations led by the Reporters Committee submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on Nov. 26 supporting Kalven’s motion to quash the subpoena. The brief emphasized that the Illinois Reporter's Privilege Act broadly protects journalists from being forced to disclose both confidential and nonconfidential sources and newsgathering activities.

But before the Reporters Committee could submit a second friend-of-the-court brief — supporting Kalven’s emergency appeal challenging the order that would have excluded him from the courtroom — its attorneys were notified that the subpoena against Kalven would be withdrawn, which also means that Kalven is now allowed to attend the trial.

"This is a win for both Jamie and the public. With the withdrawal of the subpoena, he is no longer at risk of being compelled to reveal information about his sources," said Reporters Committee staff attorney Sarah Matthews, who worked on the case. "And the public will now be able to benefit from his reporting on this trial, which he is uniquely positioned to cover."

This is not the first time that Kalven has faced legal demands for him to testify about his reporting on McDonald’s death. In 2017, Kalven was also subpoenaed by Van Dyke during his criminal case. The Reporters Committee and a media coalition also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in that case. The judge in that case granted Kalven’s motion to quash the subpoena.

Kalven’s 2015 reporting in "Sixteen Shots" exposed misconduct by the Chicago Police Department and an official cover-up. The revelations led to to the release of police dashboard camera video of the incident, Van Dyke and David March's prosecutions, a public accounting, and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

To have a healthy democracy, journalists must be encouraged to investigate and expose evidence of wrongdoing, all while protecting the sources that led them to such evidence in the first place.

"This story illustrates precisely why source protections are necessary," writes the coalition in the Nov. 26 brief. "Without them, the public may have never known how McDonald died, depriving it of the opportunity to hold the government and law enforcement accountable."

Brendan Healey at Mandell Menkes LLC represented the Reporters Committee and media coalition.